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How to Destroy These 4 Surprising Reasons People Unsubscribe from Your Email List

  • Email Marketing

Chances are, you’ve read 45 articles like this one.

Or so you think.

The question I’m raising (and answering) is this: “Why do people unsubscribe from your email list?”

You might be expecting me to explain solutions like, “Write better subject lines.”

Yadi yadi.

I’ll stifle my yawn, and you can reset your expectations.

While subject lines are important (I’ll get to that), I think it’s important to explain some of the not-so-obvious reasons that people unsubscribe from your email list.

Because you could be making some serious mistakes.

So the tone of this post might come across as harsh.

I’m not trying to be rude. But I am trying to be clear.

And here’s why.

Email marketing is super important. (And that statement is the understatement of the decade.)

To prove this point, take a look at the below research from DemandMetric. Their goal was to find out the most effective marketing tactic.

And what was it?

Email, baby.

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Let’s face it: writing good marketing emails is TOUGH. To help, we’ve put together an email marketing swipe file, including 41 email marketing examples (organized by category). Plus, a few other goodies not featured below (*cough* killer Facebook Ad examples *cough*).

Marketing Effectiveness

Source: Slideshare

CMI and MarketingProfs surfaced the same findings in their annual survey. Their survey question was, essentially, “What’s the most important marketing channel?

The overwhelming response? Email.

“But, but!” you say, “Email is changing. Isn’t everyone doing Snapchat now.”

Sorry to be contrarian. As much as I’m down with Snapchat and cat filters, I also know the research, viz., the effectiveness of email is not decreasing.

Research, with a fancy-looking chart to prove this point, please:

Rather than belabor the point, let’s just all agree that email is important, okay?

And, to take it a point further, let’s agree that you don’t want people to unsubscribe from your list.

So, why are people unsubscribing? And what can you do to stop them?

Let’s take a look.

1. Your subject lines are over the top. Seriously, they look like spam.

People love to talk about subject lines. And I get it.

But with all the attention marketers gave to improving their subject lines, they might have gone a bit too far.

Daily Deals Email Subject Line

I don’t know what you think about it, but the Face Screaming in Fear emoji up there might be overkill.

But maybe not.

And here’s why.

Audience.

The “best subject line” all depends on your audience. For some audiences, an emoji will make them click and be happy. For other audiences, the same subject line might make them go hunting for the unsubscribe link.

The difference isn’t an issue of raw subject line scripts, but a nuanced understanding of your own audience.

The subject line is the first signal to a potential ship-jumper that he or she should go ahead and bail.

If you truly know your audience and want to speak to him/her with effectiveness, you’ll tailor your subject line accordingly.

You’re probably aware that most email servers have a spam filter. Gmail, for example, does an expert job of filtering out unwanted emails.

If you’re a Gmail user and are curious about what kind of spam you’re missing out on, you can check it out:

Click “More” on the left sidebar:

Gmail _ More

Then, click “Spam”:

Gmail _ Spam

Gmail’s spam filter is excellent at weeding things out for you.

But humans also have an email spam filter. It’s far more subjective, trainable, and prone to error, but it does exist.

Every human email user has some level of spam-detection. Over years of using email, we’ve developed a sense of what messages annoy us, waste our time, etc.

For humans, the first visual and cognitive cue that an email might be spam is the subject line:

Spam Email Subject Line

Here are some of the features that often cause people to identify a subject as spammy:

  • All caps
  • Overuse of emojis
  • Overuse of exclamation points
  • Dollar symbols
  • Words like “free,” “grant,” “fund,” “sex,” “deposit,” etc.
  • Long subject lines (more than 40 characters)

Everyone’s internal spam filter is different.

That’s why understanding your audience is crucial to creating the kind of subject lines that compel rather than repel.

In summary, to ensure that your audience does not unsubscribe, follow this advice regarding subject lines:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Tailor your email subject line to their needs and interests
  3. Be cautious about sensationalizing your subject lines
  4. Be hesitant to use templated subject lines

2. Your content sucks

I hate to say it, but poorly written content causes unsubscribe rates to rise.

Let me show you what I mean:

Spam Email

I had to dig around in my spam folder for that one, but it gives you a sense of what you shouldn’t do.

Again, crafting the perfect email copy depends on your specific audience. But there are several obvious (and a few not-so-obvious) features of well-written content that will keep people from unsubscribing.

Here they are.

i. A clear purpose

Each email should have an obvious reason for existing.

This raison d’etre 1) starts with the subject line, 2) is confirmed in the first paragraph or line of the email, and 3) is communicated throughout the email copy, and 4) is finalized in the email’s CTA.

Ultimately, this is about respect for others. You communicate respect for your subscribers when you send them something that is valuable and worth their time.

It’s tempting to send emails simply for the sake of keeping your subscriber list warm and active. If you end up sending pointless emails, however, you’re going to make your subscriber list dwindle away with unsubscribes.

Keep the purpose clear and strong in every email you send.

ii. Forward momentum

What do I mean by “forward momentum?”

Your email copy should be going somewhere. You’re not rambling. You’re communicating a point.

iii. An element of story

I’ve been subscribed to Ramit Sethi’s email list for years.

One of the reasons his emails are so compelling is that he uses storytelling with remarkable skill.

Ramit Sethi Email

Storytelling is a powerful human activity, and has a remarkable cognitive impact:

How Storytelling Affects The Brain

Source: Skees

The question, however, is how does this work practically, especially in the context of marketing emails?

I understand that not all emails will be able to incorporate an actual story. Ramit might be able to share an anecdote from his life, but what about non-Ramit brands?

For example, how does an ecommerce clothing retailer write a marketing email with storytelling elements?

Here are some of those story elements that nearly any email can use:

  • The company or founder has a personality. Personality is a key feature of every story. Every story has a character, right? I’ve simplified the idea of character down to personality. This personality affects the company’s communication, allowing there to be an underlying storyline with history, growth, and change. Although it’s outside the scope of this article, creating a brand story is crucial to developing a robust brand. Rather than writing copy from the disembodied third person, or with a tasteless bland approach, insert personality into your email.
  • The copy contains emotion. The basic emotions are love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear. When an email contains hints of emotion, it makes them much more relatable and interesting. Something that we stress at Sleeknote is delighting new subscribers, which has a clear emotional angle.
  • A problem or conflict to solve. Behind every meaningful message is a problem, conflict, or tension that needs to be solved. For example, if you are Derek Halpern, the problem you might be solving in an email is “juggling all my different responsibilities.”

Derek Halpern Email

In this email, Derek—a masterful email marketer by the way—is introducing a sense of conflict (in the narrative sense). Each email you create should have this same approach.

If you are selling winter jackets, for example, the conflict is human vs. cold. When you introduce this mindset of conflict resolution into your email, you are introducing a powerful aspect of story that makes your content compelling.

By using the power of story in your emails, you can easily increase engagement levels.

I guarantee your unsubscribe rate will drop.

iv. Suspense

“Suspense” might sound like a gimmicky trick, but hear me out.

Is it possible for a marketing email to have suspense?

Suspense is a simple idea. It means that someone is excited or uncertain “about what may happen.”

Suspense Definition

How can you insert suspense into your emails?

There’s a simple way. Just hint at what’s coming next.

Here are some example lines:

  • “Next week, I’m going to send you…”
  • “Look for an email from me where I’ll tell you about…”
  • “My next message will contain…”
  • “We’re about to…”

Hiten Shah did a great job at this in one of his recent emails. Check it out:

Hiten Shah Email 2

If I’m on his list, I don’t want to unsubscribe! Not yet! I want to find out what the results will be. I want to see if his hunch is wrong! I’m in.

If each of your emails somehow anticipates the next, then you’re using the powerful method of suspense.

And it will keep people on your list for years.

v. Grammatically flawless

It should go without saying, but your emails should be error-free.

So maybe “flawless” is a bit strong, but that should be the goal. Zero errors. No mistakes. Nada.

We all make mistakes. I remember one gut-wrenching moment when I sent 21,000 people an email with a broken link. And even though I proofread this email fifty bazillion times, you’ll probably catch a typo somewhere.

It happens.

But insofar as possible, keep the errors to a minimum.

3. You didn’t deliver

Let me unpack this one.

Here’s how it works.

You’ve got this scintillating lead magnet. Your optins are set up, and wow this is a good one!

Any reader in her right mind wants that awesome thing! So they click your call-to-action (CTA) and prepare to receive the content upgrade.

Right now, their hopes are high. Their expectations are set. They are prepared to receive the awesome thing.

When the thing—awesome eBook, swipe file, whatever—arrives, they’re probably pretty happy about it.

But guess what. The next sequence in the drip campaign is a major letdown.

And that’s when they unsubscribe.

It’s easy to think that with a successful lead magnet our email marketing efforts are done and done.

In reality, that’s when the real game is just beginning.

Once you have a subscriber, it’s time to deliver—with more and more and more value.

Let me step back from this point and step up on a soapbox to make a parallel point.

Content marketing is about giving value.

Email is no different. As a component of content marketing, successful email marketing demands that you give your subscribers as much value as humanly possible.

I like the way that David Siteman Garland does this with his emails:

David Siteman Garland Email

Each email he sends offers something of value.

He keeps giving.

Is he selling? Probably, yeah. That’s what he does.

But it’s something that’s worth my time. In this email, I can sign up for a free workshop on getting speaking gigs.

T. Harv Eker also does this well.

He sends emails with a “million dollar life lesson”:

T. Harv Eker Email

For me, that’s value.

People tend to have their guard up when they hand over their email address. Yes, they want whatever it is you’re offering, but they are also wary about what’s going to come next.

It’s easy to see through this model:

  1. Hand over your email address, please
  2. Now, we get to send you all kinds of offers to buy stuff and give us money

That is a sure path to unsubscription.

A more prudent path is this:

  1. Hand over your email address, please
  2. Now, we get to send you lots of valuable stuff
  3. And even more valuable stuff!
  4. And even more

As long as you’re giving value, people will not unsubscribe.

4.  You’re making it too easy for them to unsubscribe

I just conducted an experiment in which I unsubscribed from three email lists and timed the process of each one:

Here are the results:

  1. Unsubscribed in 1 second
  2. Unsubscribed in 2 seconds
  3. Unsubscribed in 4 seconds

Here was the message I received after the 1-second unsubscribe:

Unsubscribe Confirmation

Here was the two-second one:

Sooth Email Unsubscribe Confirmation

And here’s the four-second one. I didn’t finalize the unsubscription here:

Listrak Email Unsubscribe Confirmation

Unsubscribing is often way too easy.

But on this point, we need to be really careful.

Why? Because you’re legally required to have an unsubscribe option. It’s important.

And if it’s hard for people to find it, click it, or otherwise get off your list, you’re destroying your brand integrity, and generally being a not nice human.

Which is not good.

So we walk a thin line.

But there is such a thing as making it too easy to unsubscribe.

Let me explain by using the parallel example of a call to action.

When it comes to your CTAs, you want them big, shiny, and bold, right?

Click Here GIF

(By the way, don’t even think about using a CTA like the one above. It’s horrific.)

Everything about your CTAs—the messaging, the position, the clickability, the color—it matters.

You want people to click it.

But with your unsubscribe link, you don’t want to make it easy.

Here are a few things that make it too easy for people to unsubscribe:

  • The position of the unsubscribe option (usually a text link) is directly beneath the body copy
  • The position of the unsubscribe option is close to the CTA or social sharing buttons
  • The unsubscribe option is large
  • The unsubscribe option is surrounded by a lot of white space
  • The unsubscribe option is the only option. It’s smart to put the unsubscribe option next to another option like “update your preferences”

Personally, I’m against the “1-click unsubscribe”:

1-Click Unsubscribe

Why? Because it’s too easy.

One click, and bam! they’re gone.

I dislike the 1-click option not just from the perspective of marketers, but from the perspective of the subscriber, too!

I’ve done it before—accidentally unsubscribed because of a single irreversible click. Once I clicked, there was no going back! The page after the click was something like, “Bye! We’ll never send you any more emails! Sorry to see you go!”

And I had regrets!

I wanted to get back on that list, but I didn’t know where to go, how to find the content upgrade, or if I would get bounced back to square one of the drip campaign.

Don’t do that to your would-be subscribers. Make them click a couple times (at least) to get off your list, just to make sure that’s what they really want.

How do you overcome the tragedy of an easy-to-click unsubscribe option?

I’ll show you by positive example.

Here’s Hiten Shah’s email. He uses a small font and two choices—update or unsubscribe.

Hiten Shah_s Email

John Maxwell’s email doesn’t even offer an unsubscribe option. The only option I have is to update my email preferences:

John Maxwell Email

Take a look at this great unsubscribe paragraph from Brendon Burchard:

Brendon Buchard Email

Here’s the text of that paragraph:

PS. You’re awesome. I have your email [EMAIL ADDRESS]. Let me know if that’s not the best one, or unsubscribe (but careful, unsub means I can’t deliver your emails, even for things you asked/paid for). As always, if you need anything just hit reply – we always got your back. You can reach me anytime at brendon@expertsacademy.com or PO Box 5368 Portland, OR, 97228.

I think it’s awesome.

Why?

Because of the way he introduces his unsubscribe option. Let me parse some of the genius aspects of this paragraph:

  • He compliments the reader. “You’re awesome.” That instinctively produces some hesitancy about unsubscribing.
  • He expresses interest in your welfare. “Let me know if that’s not the best one.”
  • He obliquely references “unsubscribe,” but it’s paired with a positive option. “Let me know if that’s not the best one, or unsubscribe.”
  • He provides a mild threat if you do unsubscribe. “But careful, unsub means I can’t deliver your emails, even for things you asked/paid for.”
  • He offers help. “As always, if you need anything just hit reply – we always got your back. You can reach me anytime.” This creates a sense of personal affiliation and camaraderie.

Couched in this warm and inspiring paragraph is the unsubscribe link.

Obviously, if someone is bent on unsubscribing, they’re going to find that link, disregard the compliments, and unsubscribe.

But a paragraph like that will likely prevent a whole lot of people from unsubscribing.

You may not go to the same lengths that Brendon goes to fend off would-be unsubscribers.

But you don’t need to make it easy for them to unsubscribe.

Further reading: 7 Advanced Ways to Reduce Email Unsubscribe Rates (+ Swipe to Steal)

Free Downloadable Bonus

Want More Email Marketing Inspiration?

Let’s face it: writing good marketing emails is TOUGH. To help, we’ve put together an email marketing swipe file, including 41 email marketing examples (organized by category). Plus, a few other goodies not featured below (*cough* killer Facebook Ad examples *cough*).

Conclusion

When I first brainstormed this article, I had seventeen reasons for unsubscribes.

In reality, there are hundreds of reasons people unsubscribe from email lists.

But, frankly, a lot of those reasons are obvious or don’t need in-depth discussion.

When I got into the research, I realized that these four reasons for unsubscribes are massively important and dangerously overlooked.

Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve discussed in this article—the reasons people unsubscribe:

  1. Spammy-looking subject lines
  2. Poorly written content
  3. Failure to deliver value
  4. Too easy to unsubscribe

It starts with the subject line. It’s carried forward in the content of the email itself. It’s embodied in the overall value of the message. And it concludes with the mechanics and messaging of the unsubscribe button.

Unsubscription isn’t the end of the world. You win some. You lose some.

And keep in mind that some unsubscription is a good thing.

There are some people on your list that are never going to click-through, never going to buy, and are simply cluttering your list with dead weight.

Good riddance.

But other types of unsubscribes can be prevented. See if you’ve been committing any of these mistakes, and follow the process for correcting them.

And if you notice any positive differences in your unsubscribe rates, I want to hear about it!

Which of the above reasons resonates with you? Why do you unsubscribe from emails? Leave a comment below.

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